The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appears to be in a veritable free fall. It lost an election in Punjab where virtually all observers believed that it held a substantial initial advantage. It not only lost to a party whose political fortunes appear to be in a state of permanent decline but barely exceeded the performance of the ruling coalition widely panned for an ineffective and corrupt administration. It has only taken AAP two years to turn its magnificent victory in Delhi into a humiliating defeat in the recently held municipal elections. Worryingly for AAP, the Congress voters who had completely abandoned the party in Delhi appear to be coming back home.
What would give further pause to AAP supporters is the clear lack of self-reflection and self-criticism. It has preferred a bizarre tirade against electronic voting machines (EVMs) aligned with its preternatural ability to convert every disagreement into a grand conspiratorial narrative. Though it might appeal to party's core supporters and help Arvind Kejriwal maintain his halo of popularity, it strengthens the narrative that AAP is an irresponsible party which cannot be trusted with power. After promising a political culture radically different from the rest, it has exceeded the Congress party in its desire to deflect responsibility from the paramount leader.
Further exasperating the true believers is the constant and bitter infighting. In its latest itineration, Kapil Mishra has been unceremoniously dumped from the cabinet. Kapil Mishra’s charges of personal corruption against Arvind Kejriwal are too convenient to be believed but there is a delicious irony in AAP being hoist by its own petard. Its habit of flinging reckless charges, cheered on by a section of the media which confuses foolhardiness with bravery, has led it to a sorry point where even its genuine criticism of Modi government’s high-handedness has few takers.
So is the party over for the AAP? Or can it still stage a comeback? The odds are against it but nothing is impossible in politics. Arvind Kejriwal has certainly proved previously that he is endowed with an extra ordinary fighting spirit.
First, AAP and its leaders need to recognize and celebrate their success. In India’s stultified politics where outsiders are rare and lineage or political affiliations count the most, Kejriwal has succeeded with no god fathers and little political infrastructure or monetary wherewithal. Delhi may only be half a state but in a country where even panchayat elections are fiercely contested, winning a state is a significant achievement. Seasoned professionals like Nitish Kumar or Mamata Banerjee who have been in politics for decades struggle to win a single seat outside their strong holds. And yet within four years, the AAP is the main opposition in Punjab. That is nothing to be scoffed at
But it is unclear if Kejriwal understands the enormity of his own political achievements. Perhaps he suffers from a savior complex or he genuinely believes that he is the leader India needs right now. What else explains his absurd political decisions ranging from fighting an impossible election against Narendra Modi from Varanasi to his refusal to declare a CM candidate in Punjab? To Delhi voters, it suggests that Arind Kejriwal is interested in every job except the one he was elected to. And if there is anything voters detest most, it is to be treated as a mere stepping stone. Arvind Kejriwal was delivered an enormous verdict by the voters in Delhi and he should fully pay that debt before he moves on. India will take care of itself.
Second, a broader realization of what is politically feasible. Narendra Modi is the most popular Indian prime minister in forty years. Kejriwal cannot contest Modi only through twitter barbs or media comments and his party is in no position to challenge Modi across the country. Even if an anti-BJP mahagathbandhan is launched in 2019, there are far bigger claimants to be its prime ministerial candidate and they are unlikely to accept a newbie barely a decade old in politics. Arvind Kejriwal is ambitious and wants to become the prime minister of India. There is nothing wrong in aspiring for the ultimate prize in Indian politics. But as important as ambition is in motivating a politician, so is a sense of realism. Arvind Kejriwal will not become India’s leader in 2019 and its quixotic pursuit may completely destroy his political career. Arvind Kejriwal should bide his time, respect the position he holds and the people who elected him to it, and he still has decades to realize his ambitions.
Finally, revolutions usually fail for two reasons. First, revolutionaries are so much in love with the idea of fighting the system that even conquest appears as co-option. Reconciling with the idea of power and its visible symbols without becoming just another political animal is an extremely fine balance which great leaders in history have failed. Will Kejriwal prove to be different? There is every reason to be skeptical and it is only he who can prove the critics wrong and reassure the increasingly frantic supporters. Second, governance is mostly boring. It involves anodyne tasks and routines which capture no media headlines and most of the effort is cloaked in anonymity. There is no drama in it especially compared to grand gestures of night-time protests amidst the media glare or giving sound bites assured to drive the TV news cycle for the next 24 hours. Or compare the glamour of the so-called odd-even scheme which did little to alleviate the pollution problem in Delhi but assured gushing headlines versus trying to navigate the complex land acquisition issues which have constantly hobbled Delhi metro's expansion.
Even the media ultimately gets bored with this routine unless one can keep upping the ante. So does the public. Arvind Kejriwal needs to ignore the media circus and worry not about making headlines but about avoiding them. Theater is important in politics---and Modi is its great exponent---but only theater ultimately leads to the destruction of Laloo Yadav.
Arvind Kejriwal has an opportunity in Indian politics very few outsiders are blessed with. But that opportunity is evaporating fast and politics is a brutal sport and voters an unforgiving lot. He should concentrate on Delhi for the next few years, keep his head down, and prove himself an efficient and responsible politician, and not merely a flamethrower.
Arvind Kejriwal and his party already had a second chance; there might not be a third one.
# This article first appeared on Rohit Pradhan's personal blog www.retributions.in, Twitter: @retributions